Crazy Artists

Robert Genn has interesting newsletter online this week, where he asks “How Sick are you?”
The crazy artist is a common stereotype that a lot of artists have to deal with. Some artists have truly deserved the label of the “mad artist”, some of us have mad moments, and some of us are happy, well adjusted members of society.
I think I fit into the middle category, but not because I think I’m sometimes mad. I think continually accessing our creative self opens artists up to feelings that a busy office worker or laborer wouldn’t usually experience. It’s a bit like meditating all day while holding a paint brush.
I like to think of artists as “different”, rather than crazy.

Anyway, the newsletter talks about a study that discusses a few artists with very bad eye sight..
According to John Morley of the St. Louis School of Medicine in Missouri, the presence of cataracts leads to Impressionism. Citing Monet, Renoir and Cassatt, he implies that eye problems helped them to paint the way they did. Cezanne is mentioned for a diabetic condition that caused the color blindness that shows in his work. Van Gogh’s probable epilepsy spurred on his hallucinatory imagery–the fuzz and swirls around the stars in Starry Night.” Painters Keys

About Dion

Australian artist and observer of things.. all kinds of things. I like a wide variety of art, from the weird and wonderful to the bold and beautiful.. and everything in between.


  1. Everything in our lives influences or shapes our work, from economics, world issues, health problems and limitations. What I don’t agree with at all is the idea that bad eyesight led to impressionism. That totally ignores the whole history of who influenced Monet and what led him to do impressionism. Besides his poor eyesight was in his later years.

  2. I tend to agree with jafabrit. There are too many unknowns, in spite of all the historical research, to define and bottle the why’s and wherefore’s of artists from another century. I sometimes laugh at what future historians might make of some of my marks and smears… and the bigger laugh is that they would bother ;-)

  3. Gosh, what is it with science and explaining everything to death. How pretty is the pink evening sky when someone remarks “pollution”, how spectacular is the rainbow as “nothing special, can create it”, and how precious are stars as big balls of gas?

    To have the nerve to even suggest you know the true and one “reason” he painted that way. So inflated. I agree with kj, it’s a laugh that they bother, and you wonder about the reason. To take away the magic?

  4. Concerning the fact that artists are a bit different from society because they meditate behind the paintbrush I agree is true.
    I have notice that when I spend long periods of time painting I see things differently and live in my own little world…. I might stare to peoples faces more than usual appreciating the lines and the shadows and imagining how I would paint it, or even stop in the middle of the street admiring the beauty of a tree blooming or something that caught my eye that would be nice if drawn..
    Definitely an artist brain has to work differently!!!

  5. What I find narrow minded is reducing Van Gogh’s painting to a *presumed* hallucination which completely ignores the whole history of his artistic exploration that led to the painting. Seems they only study artists whose lives are fodder for sentationalism, but what of the many artists who work is seminal yet lived/live ordinary, emotionally balanced and healthy lives?

  6. Yeah, I think it’s just a good way for researchers to draw attention to themselves. Just mention a few famous artists and publish a few controversial comments about them, then sit back and watch the media pick up your story.

    I have that problem too Angela. The smallest things can completely fascinate me.


  7. There was a time when the commitment to work above all was accepted as appropriate for a wide range of occupations. Today it is to be found among members of a smaller percentage of occupations but the total number has grown so greatly that it is hard to judge whether the percentage of people involved is greater or lesser than in the past.
    What has changed are the norms, that is the ethical expectations, applied to all members of society.Some of the older among us may remember the social reports and novels (made into film) which portrayed the clash between the traditional work ethic and the newer family ethic coming into ever greater influence. This was seen to have maximum impact on the role of worker and the role of husband (we are speaking of the late forties and, in particular, the fifties) vis-a-vis his wife, and, even more strikingly, between the husbands job and the needs of his children.
    Of course, the tension of role conflict not only became greater along these lines, but the new expectations favoring a career for woman versus the wife, and, most particularly, the mother role, has added dimensions of conflict beyond what we imagined in the fifties (with the beginning of which I became a professional). The artists role is archetypal in all these respects. Artists are given greater leeway for deviance from the norms when they are “geniuses”, GREAT ARTISTS, but I doubt (but do not know) whether the vast majority of serious,dedicated, often quite skilled, artists are given the same latitude. I would guess that not being a Van Gogh,Picasso, or……(insert the names of your choice) the artist who puts his work above his family roles is defined as egocentric, lazy, irresponsible or whatever characterization has been developed in the particular subgroup. In fact,I would hypothesize that those with the greatest ambition for success,whether scientist or artist, is unable to function normally in the family, if normal is defined as consonant with the most generally accepted norms for the general society.
    To turn to the question of eyesight and type of art produce,or any of the many statements one sees proliferating in the media, you must remember that the media now assigns people to read the key professional journals, almost every university, research organization now has publicity agents (whatever their label) and the public, increasingly committed to fact not fiction,has an omniverous hunger for information about itself and its special members. That being the case, hypothesis is treates as fact, what are essentially pilot studies are treated as if they had demonstrated the TRUTH, and anyone, wise, foolish, informed, ignorant, can be cited as an intellectual Messiah.
    The process of science has many safeguards against all these, and more, abuses, as artistic work-groups have when the are well organized (and when are they) against the charlatan, the fake, the fraud.The Truth or science is not the truth of art, though both have learned much from the other (at least, if we think of the social sciences, I would not say the same of the physical or natural sciences).Neither is the TRUTH of religion or the many forms of thought, such as Myth,which have enabled people to live in an ever perilous world.
    I suppose what I am saying is that Leonardo, Raphael, Michelangelo, Durer,and company, had a much clearer path, no matter how difficult, because they knew themselves to be workman turning out a product, and that their commitment to the family, which was primary for them and everyone, allowed them to concentrate on the work role because it contributed to the family’s welfare in the best way possible for them. The artist today is beset by conflicts of commitment far beyond what they faced. We face many more situations in which society has not yet created an accepted order of priority leaving the individual lonely and afraid, inevitably guilty through no self-fault because faced by irreconcilable (at this moment, in this place)social expectations.
    Tennis Anyone?
    (Trivia question, what film actor of cult status spoke that line (and many like it)in his earlier Broadway career?)


  8. I think true art is a passion that comes close to obsession. I know my best pieces of art are those that I couldn’t let go of until my mind was at rest, or my heart was satisfied. For example, one of my pieces started from a simple idea of how to portray a certain thought as an image. So I found an old note book and started sketching away. After I had done this, I wasn’t satisfied, but kept on rolling the idea round in my mind and on paper, looking at how I could progress it. The sketches became bigger and more detailed, and so did my ideas behind it. Maybe some would view this as a bit mad, but I think heart and passion is essential to the progress of true art. Here is the point. Art stems from a million and one thoughts, observations, feelings and passions. It annoys me when people try to put everything in simplified boxes or when they read too much into things, because it takes away so much from the wonder of the art work.

  9. Listen, it may be the case that some artists live well balanced and healthy lives, but do you think anyone cares about them? It is human nature to be attracted to the chaotic and the perverse. Also, our world has changed, while artists are looked at as the idiots of a society with nothing intelligent to say and nothing to contribute, it didnt used to be that way. only a couple hundred years ago artists were the end all and the be all, we did the first anatomy drawings, we were the architects and the lawyers, we were everything and anything society needed us to be. What are we now? A bunch of well-balanced, healthy people?! that’s not art and those arent artists and dont lie to me. I know what makes me an artist, and it certainly isnt how my life is lived, it’s how i think and feel compared to the way everyone else does, it’s how far i am willing to do to express even my deepest most morbid thoughts and feelings. Quite frankly, going into art now is a safe way out, just because you liked to doodle growing up doesnt make you a legitimate artist in my book. Art is passion, passion is intensity, and intensity is NOT well balanced and healthy. Read “Diary” by Chuck Palahniuk please, and remember “Inspiration needs disease, injury, madness”.
    The world is sick of beauty obviously otherwise we would not commend such evil things. So all you well balanced, healthy artists out there, keep doing your “summer in provence” scenes, or your “wintertime in paris” stuff, cos it’s not gonna change the world and its not gonna make a difference, and if you became an artist for any other reason than to make a difference or to change something…then you’re not a real artist. At least you can console yourself with the fact that you can draw pretty things that no one will remember in 15 years. Doesnt that make you happy?

  10. I don’t know why all these reasons are on here. Don’t get caught up in the arguing. Someone said something… so what? I think the reason that Impressionism began was because the painter had too much to drink and was not seeing things clearly… come on, it does not matter what I or anyone else says (they are just creating something else like a controversy or story), it is still great art.
    This great art makes you think inside, “whoa that is something wonderful/peculiar/amazing/even horrendous…..!” All reasons(excuses) be damned.

  11. Anonymous says:

    this crazy artist stereotype has existed for as long as ive been alive, so where did it come from? when did it start and why, what were the circumstances surrounding it?

  12. Anonymous says:

    robert schuman, virginia woolf, cage kennylz, daniel johnston, Beethoven, Kurt cobain, Vangough, spike milligan, Guy from the beach boys etc, were examples of mentally ill. Theres a higher occurance of mental illness in artist populations than general populations.

  13. If I ever become or became a successful and famouse artist; well I’ll just be honest and say that I don’t think that they would have a hard time making me out to be a mad artist. No matter what I think. Whether this is good or bad I know not, but I would welcome the success.

  14. This by far has been one of the most interested reads I have encounterd lately. Thanks for blogging about this…I feel more conected to this earth when I am painting. Almost as if I a have all the answers to lifes mysteries. Now when Im not painting I can barely add 2 + 2.

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